The filmmakers behind Joker “never believed” the drama, an origin story for the famed Batman villain portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, was “dangerous” or that it might incite real-life violence. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher, a six-time collaborator with director Todd Phillips, says worries Joker could spark acts of terror or other violent reactions were often the concerns of pre-judging commentators who had yet to see the movie. Despite the widely circulated controversy and reported threats surrounding Warner Bros.’ DC Comics-inspired hit, Joker scored the biggest-ever opening for an October release and won the approval of moviegoers, who awarded the film a 90% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a B+ on CinemaScore.
Appearing on the Go Creative Show podcast, Sher said the lead up from Joker’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival — where it was received by an eight-minute standing ovation before being awarded the Golden Lion top prize — was fraught with headlines Joker was dangerous or deplorable.
“It was a wild ride, more so probably for Todd than for me, but certainly as somebody who has spent the last 10 years making six movies with Todd, I feel that same level of investment that he does,” Sher said. “But he had such a wild ride and such an amazing start to this experience with the Venice Film Festival, that I think the next subsequent — let’s say four weeks until this weekend of its actual release — was fraught with those kind of things.”
He continued: “Like headlines and some reviewers and other people that were saying the movie was dangerous and was gonna incite violence and all these things that we never believed would happen or believed was true in spite of being, obviously, very sensitive to the reality of certainly gun violence in America and all the issues the movie provokes.”
The creative team was also confident audiences would respond favorably to Joker once they had the chance to see the film themselves.
“But we also believed, at our heart — and I believe this personally, as somebody who is a big part of the movie but also as an audience member — I believed that audiences were gonna respond the way they did, and that once they had the chance to see the movie, sort of the field would then be leveled and back to an even playing field again,” Sher added. “It wouldn’t be so heavily kind of weighted towards critics and other journalists that were, frankly, to some extent sometimes pre-judging a movie that some of them hadn’t even seen.”
Asked to explain why the Joker is such a polarizing on-screen figure, Sher said the movie — centered around mentally ill loner Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian overlooked by a callous society — is “not an easy” one.
“I think it’s two-fold. I think one, we live in a very polarized world, particularly in the U.S. right now, I think we’re pretty divided. And those issues, the issues of violence and the issues of disparity between the rich and the poor, the seen and the unseen, I think are feeling very strong and at the forefront right now,” Sher said. “The energy of that, I think, is infused in a movie like this because unlike most comic book movies — or certainly unlike a lot of movies particularly in the studio space nowadays — this movie is intense, and it’s dark, and it’s risky, and it’s not an easy movie.”
Joker also faced criticism for its infrequent but sometimes graphic depictions of violence, which Phillips has argued is unfair: his film is less violent than the blockbuster John Wick franchise, celebrated for its too-many-to-count kills.
“The violence in it is brutal — which I think violence is brutal, by its nature it’s brutal — and yet we sometimes see violence portrayed in movies in a cavalier and kind of careless and fun way,” Sher noted. “And this movie we set out to make is something that we wanted to ground in a certain layer of reality, and we wanted, intentionally, the violence to be raw and real. I think that brings out a lot of feelings in the audience.”
Ultimately, neither Joker nor its creative team are “excusing the behavior of the villain by any stretch.”
“The path he takes is one of destruction and chaos, and yet, he’s a character — particularly as portrayed by Joaquin — that you empathize with. And I think, when you have a movie that you spend time seeing a human being turn and become the worst part of himself and go down a path of violence and other things, and the end of the movie is almost operatic in that it’s lifting him up… it’s a conflicting feeling,” Sher said. “Because you’ve now aligned yourself with this person on screen, and he does some bad things, and that happens, and I think that makes for a conflicting movie. I think it also makes for a movie that’s super interesting.”
Sher also says Joker’s financial performance and its mostly positive reception from audiences is proof moviegoers can handle risky movies that are neither fun nor easy.
“One of the things I’m most happy and proud of the movie on its own — but also the fact that audiences seem to really respond to it — is it bucks the trend that people always say movies have to be purely an escape or they have to be fun and easy, or ‘don’t do this in a movie, because you’ll never get the audience,’” he said. “This movie challenges all of those things, and its box office result has just proved that audiences are ready and are excited by things that are different, and risky, and even at times just wholly artistic. I think this movie stands alone in a studio space, certainly, in a way that’s very exciting, and I’m super proud to have been a part of it.”